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The fall of one size fits all

Kirk Cousins, shown last season, is among the NFL players who have been trying Riddell's new Precision-Fit helmet during spring organized team activities. Rob Carr/Getty Images

I'm sitting on a stool in the middle of an office, wearing a football helmet shell while a guy is pointing a gadget at me that looks a bit like an iPad with handles.

"Keep looking straight ahead," he says as he circles around me, waving the gadget like a magic wand. "Try not to move too much."

After about 30 seconds of this, I remove the helmet and replace it with a thick, uncomfortable hood, sort of like an industrial-strength ski mask, and the whole process repeats, with the guy once again circling around me with his gadget.

The guy is Patrick Friel, a product manager for the football helmet manufacturer Riddell. The gadget -- one of only nine currently in existence -- is a scanner, and Friel is using it to create 3-D images of my head. After the second round of scans, we look at some digital images of me that the scanner captured.

"That's it," Friel says. "That's how it works."

"It" is Riddell's Precision-Fit system, a new initiative that custom-fits a helmet's interior padding to a player's head. The helmets are designed to be more comfortable and provide better performance -- and maybe an increased level of safety, although the jury is still out on that.

"The first scan determines how the helmet will sit on the athlete's head," Friel said. "That determines the way the helmet's pitched, both forward and back and left to right. So maybe an offensive lineman likes it tilted slightly back -- that first scan will capture exactly how that shell wants to be positioned. And then that second scan with just the hood on, that's when we capture the actual surface of the player's head."

Precision-Fit, which Riddell began beta-testing at the college level last season and is expanding with additional NCAA and NFL teams this year, is the latest salvo in the football helmet arms race, as manufacturers try to do a better job of preventing concussions and convincing parents across America that it's OK to let their kids play football.

While Riddell has been working on Precision-Fit, the company's chief rival, Schutt, has come out with an innovative new helmet design called the F7, which features two flexible exterior plates designed to disperse the force of head impacts. Meanwhile, both firms are looking over their shoulders at an upstart brand called Vicis, which is marketing a new helmet called the Zero 1, featuring a deformable shell that has generated a lot of buzz and captured the attention of teams and investors alike.

Riddell's Precision-Fit process, which so far is available only for the company's SpeedFlex and Revolution Speed helmets, begins with a Riddell representative doing two scans of the player's head -- one while he's wearing a helmet and one while he's wearing the tight hood:

The scans are used to create 3-D images, which in turn are used to build custom molds for the helmet's interior padding. The resulting helmet looks markedly different than a standard model. Instead of the familiar array of small interior padding nodules, the Precision-Fit helmet's interior looks more like a unified whole. (The padding also includes the player's name and signature, a personalized touch that, unsurprisingly, has been very popular with players.)

The whole process, from scan to finished helmet, takes four to six weeks. The price is $1,750 for the player's first Precision-Fit helmet and $1,200 for each additional helmet made from the same molds -- significantly more than the $400 price point for a traditional helmet.

Riddell began beta-testing Precision-Fit about a year ago with 82 players from several major college programs, including Florida, Iowa and Ohio State.

"It's definitely the most comfortable helmet I've ever worn," said a Florida player who participated in the program last season. (His name is not being used because the school's compliance department didn't want him to give the appearance of endorsing one helmet brand over another.) "Just being in the game and not having to worry about my helmet, not having to get anything adjusted in the middle of the game, not having anything feeling weird -- that made a big difference. No distractions."

Ohio State had five players wearing Precision-Fit last season, including quarterback J.T. Barrett, defensive lineman Sam Hubbard, offensive lineman Billy Price and linebacker Dante Booker, and it expects to add about five more this year.

"The main thing I heard from them is that it's more of a locked-in type of fit," Ohio State assistant equipment manager Kevin Ries said. "With normal helmets that have air-management systems, you're pumping up the helmet or shimming it or changing out the jaw pads, stuff like that. But with this one, it fits like a glove and it sits right where it needs to sit, so you never have to make any adjustments. It's an equipment manager's dream, actually -- it makes my job a lot easier."

Riddell is planning a limited expansion of the program this year, with a ceiling of 400 to 500 new molds, available on a first-come, first-served basis. (The scans that were made of my head will not be used to create a custom helmet, because that would use up one of the company's available molds for this year.) The 2017 rollout includes offering the system to all 32 NFL teams. One of the first pro players to try it for organized team activities was Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Two of his teammates -- linebackers Will Compton and Martrell Spaight -- soon followed.

"The three guys all had the same initial response," said the Redskins' assistant equipment manager, Scott Rotier. "Their eyes got huge and they said they couldn't believe how well it fits. They could immediately feel the difference, right out of the box."

Rotier said the tight fit has had an unexpected side benefit for Cousins: improved peripheral vision, because his helmet moves in better sync with his head movements.

"He said he never realized how much lag there was before," Rotier said. "He'd turn his head and the helmet would lag behind just a bit. It's probably only a very small fraction of a second, but that can make a difference. Now the mask isn't getting in his field of vision like it was before."

Rotier and Ries agreed that Precision-Fit could be an ideal solution for players who have unusually shaped heads or who fall between standard helmet sizes. But while the helmets are fully approved for on-field use, some players are waiting to see how they perform in the NFL's testing program, which evaluates various brands and models for reducing head-impact severity. The new Vicis helmet raised eyebrows earlier this year by placing first in the league's latest round of testing -- an impressive achievement for a new brand. Riddell is just now providing the NFL with Precision-Fit samples for testing, and so far there's no timetable for when the results will be available.

"That testing chart is important to some players," Rotier said. "Every year during OTAs, we usually have six or 10 guys who come in and say, 'This is the helmet I wore last year, but where does it rank on the latest chart? And can I do better?' So that's going to be a key for Precision-Fit."

But if the helmet tests well, Rotier said, it could become a category killer. "Traditionally, the line of thought has been that you can't have everyone in the same helmet, because everyone's head is a different shape and different brands fit differently," he said. "But with this, you can fit anyone's head. So if it tests well, it'll be hard for teams not to want all their guys wearing it."

Riddell expects to ramp up the program further in 2018, with enough capacity to provide a custom helmet for any NCAA and NFL player who wants one. Down the road, the company hopes the costs will come down enough to make Precision-Fit affordable at the high school level. It also plans to develop an app that will allow coaches to scan their own players with a smartphone and then send the files to Riddell.

How can you tell if a player is wearing a Precision-Fit helmet? The interior padding is black, so look for the telltale black padding peeking out from the helmet shell. Based on that, it appears that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been trying out a Precision-Fit helmet during recent OTAs. (The Steelers declined a request to speak with their equipment staff and players for this article.)

It might not be long before custom-fitted helmets become more the rule than the exception. Although Riddell's process is patent pending, it seems likely that rival manufacturers will attempt to develop their own versions of it. If that happens, head scanning and custom-molded interior padding could become the norm across the industry.

"I think that may happen, and I think it needs to happen," Ries said. "Once this becomes mainstream this year, it becomes a 'Why wouldn't you do it?' kind of thing."

Paul Lukas had fun quoting the classic Dizzy Dean joke after getting his head scanned. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.